Faith, family, friends guide health professions graduate through serious challenges

May 17, 2022
Esther Odeghe stands wearing a pink sweater and black top with her arms crossed. She is smiling.
College of Health Professions graduate Esther Odeghe. Photo by Sarah Pack.

This article originally appeared in the MUSC Catalyst News.

Only days from graduating from the MUSC College of Health Professions as a certified registered nurse anesthetist, Esther Odeghe reflected with awe and gratitude on the journey she has taken – from a young girl in Nigeria who could only watch helplessly as her grandmother died in pain to a professional who can provide physical and emotional comfort to patients.

The journey has not been straightforward but has come with zigs and zags and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But prayer and the people in her life have made all the difference.

“Graduating and looking at what my paycheck is going to be, it makes me sit down and think, ‘Yes, God has been just. God has been faithful,’ – being from where I didn’t have a place, and I was planning to sleep in my car.”

Odeghe’s story begins in Aba, Nigeria, as the middle of five children and the only girl. In Nigeria, she didn’t even realize that anesthesia existed. Because medical care must be paid for upfront, she said, most people go to the hospital only when they’ve run out of other options. Her grandmother, whom they called Mma Mommy, died in pain after suffering “a spell.” Years later, in nursing school, Odeghe would start cataloguing her grandmother’s symptoms and realize it might have been a preventable death. But at the time, the only thing the family could do was call for the naturopathic doctor.

After finishing her schooling in Nigeria, Odeghe followed her two older brothers to the U.S. for college.

“Coming here, when I got here, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. All I knew was I wanted to leave Nigeria,” she said.

She landed at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. With a whole new world of possibilities opened up to her, she was at first an undecided major. But after carefully considering her strengths and weaknesses, she decided to pursue nursing. Still, it was a choice she made with her head rather than her heart. Only when she began working as a tech at a Columbia hospital did she truly begin to appreciate the role.

“My best times are seeing the patients smile,” she said.

Map of Nigeria. iStock 
Odeghe is from the city of Aba in southeast Nigeria. iStock

While at SC State, Odeghe saw a presentation about different ways to advance in nursing, such as becoming a nurse practitioner or a CRNA, and decided she would like to pursue CRNA training. CRNA programs require experience as a critical care nurse, so upon graduation from SC State in 2014, Odeghe went to work at Carolinas Hospital System – now MUSC Health-Florence.

But when she moved to Charleston to be closer to her brother, an immigration paperwork holdup prevented her from working.

“When I came to Charleston, I was all tears,” she said.

“I wasn't working. I had a nursing degree staring at me that I couldn’t use. I had the career path I wanted to pursue that I couldn't pursue. I had a pending immigration process that I didn't know if it was going to go south.”

She couldn’t even drive because her driver’s license had expired, she said.

She credits her church family with keeping her on the right path. Odeghe began attending Charleston Revival Tabernacle when she first moved here, and the church opened its arms to her – even so far as the pastor and his wife allowing her to live with them.

She couldn’t work; she couldn’t go to school; and she couldn’t drive, so she threw herself into church life, joining the choir, teaching Sunday nursery school and cooking. Looking back now, she realizes how her hosts knew what dire straits she was in and always subtly ensured that she had enough to eat.

It would have been so easy to give in to frustration and anger at her situation and turn to alcohol or drugs, she said.

“It’s only one bad thought that could send you to the other side of life,” she reflected.

She believes that God sent her to be with the right people to keep her sane in the most difficult times. Through the church, she also met her good friend Unyime Edem, who has become like a sister to her. For a time, Odeghe lived with Edem, and even after she began working again and attending school at MUSC, her friend was there to bring her food after long days, to lend her money when she’s come up short, to do her hair and to listen to her ups and downs.

“I'm crying – I call her. I'm laughing – I call her. When I broke up with my boyfriend, she was there. She’s been there,” Odeghe said.

Odeghe began the CRNA program at MUSC in 2019. Getting in was a huge accomplishment. “When I got into school my pastor cried. Everybody who knew my story cried,” she said.

But staying in has also been a feat.

She didn’t have the funds to pay each semester’s tuition up front, so she took out loans and worked at Trident Medical Center to make monthly payments on what the loan didn’t cover – in fact, she made the final payment for her final semester only weeks ago.

When her classmates would go out for drinks after an exam, Odeghe would go to work. When she wasn’t too busy at work, she would study.

At one point, she thought she would have to drop out so she could work full time and save some money before continuing her studies. But it’s a tough program, and she feared that if she left, she would never return.

Reluctantly, she contacted Angela Mund, DNP, director of the college’s Division of Anesthesia for Nurses.

“She does not know how she impacted me. I was scared to tell her, and she was just full of ideas,” Odeghe said.

Mund brainstormed ideas for reducing the financial burden and was able to help Odeghe qualify for in-state tuition, which Odeghe said was enormously helpful.

It also made her work even harder, if that was possible. After all that Mund did for her, Odeghe felt she couldn’t let her down by getting a bad grade. Nor could she let down her parents, to whom she was sending money, or her church family and everyone who had helped her.

“It was a humbling, growing experience. I prayed a lot,” she said.

Supportive faculty, who saw through the “everything’s OK” facade to the struggle within, were instrumental to her success in the program, she said.

As for Mund, she saw Odeghe’s determination from the moment they met when Odeghe interviewed for acceptance into the college.

“She demonstrated resilience, which is an important attribute for our students and for CRNAs,” Mund said. “Once she started in the program, she continued to overcome obstacles to her dream of becoming a CRNA. And even with these challenges, she always has such a positive outlook. I am confident that this played an integral part in her successes.”

And Mund said she looks forward to the amazing things that Odeghe will accomplish.

After graduation, Odeghe is headed to Cape Fear Valley Health System in North Carolina on a year’s contract. She plans to take that year to orient herself and decide where she might like to live long term. She knows that she wants to settle in the U.S., although she would like to participate in medical mission trips to Nigeria.

Odeghe said her journey has been difficult and stressful at times, but she is grateful for all the options she now has.

“I did not take it for granted,” she said. “I don’t complain. I don’t complain because I’m like, ‘It’s an opportunity.'"